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ARLINGTON, VA. — On a hillside of Arlington National Cemetery, the markers remember the dead. Unlike the rest of the cemetery, though, no bodies are buried in section MK. These markers remember those who were lost but never recovered, the missing in action.
The memorial markers cover just a fraction of the cemetery. Out of more than 400,000 buried at Arlington, there are only 2,740 memorial markers.
A service Friday at a new marker honoring a World War II soldier who went missing in the Pacific theater is indicative of the sometimes tortuous process families have had to undertake to get a stone placed and a reminder of the administrative failures that led to a change in leadership at the cemetery several years ago.
In 2005, Brooklyn resident David Shulman read a newspaper article about a marker placed at Arlington to commemorate a service member who had gone missing in the South Pacific. Until then, Shulman had never realized that his grandfather, Capt. Stan Loewenberg, was eligible to receive a similar marker.
Now, more than seven years later, a corrected stone is in place at the cemetery and a service with military honors is scheduled for Friday.
“I cannot even tell you what a frustrating, absurd process this has been. They should be ashamed of themselves,” Shulman said. “My grandfather gave his life to his country. They made us feel like they were doing us a favor.”
Getting the first marker placed, actually, was not especially cumbersome. The family called the cemetery, provided some documentation, and after a period of some months received a postcard in 2006 notifying them that the marker had been installed.
But there were errors. The date he had gone missing was incorrect and it stated that Loewenberg had been a member of the 9th Bomber Command, when he had been a member of the 5th Bomber Command.
Loewenberg was one of 12 people who disappeared in March 1943, including the command’s brigadier general, Howard Ramey, in a B-17 Flying Fortress nicknamed “Pluto.”
Loewenberg was a captain in the Army Air Forces, an intelligence officer on a reconnaissance mission, said Justin Taylan, who operates the Pacific Wrecks website, which researches and documents many of the World War II missions in the Pacific theater that produced tens of thousands of MIAs.
The family sought to have the stone corrected. Also, it was important to the family that the stone contained a simple notation — “MIA” — to make clear that Loewenberg was never found. Most of the memorial markers just list the date the service member vanished and include “In memory of” to distinguish the markers from gravestones.
It was then that the family encountered years of bureaucratic obstinacy. Calls were not returned. Years passed. The problems were indicative of administrative failings at the cemetery that were well documented. Stories of misplaced remains and other failings led to the removal of the cemetery’s top officials, and a new regime was installed to improve operations.
Shulman said the problems continued even under the new administration. Last year, the family sought to have a memorial service scheduled, with the appropriate military honors. But they were told that they were too late. It took intervention from the office of Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., and the Army’s general counsel to get the service scheduled.
The cemetery’s administrator, Renea Yates, acknowledged that cemetery staff may not have been entirely clear on the benefits that apply to the family of a service member who was missing in action. In Loewenberg’s case, the confusion was exacerbated by the paper trail under the previous administration.
“Before we got here it was sketchy at best” as to how requests for memorial markers should be handled, Yates said. The cemetery may only process a few dozen requests for memorial markers in any given year.
Generally, any person who is eligible for ground burial at Arlington would also be eligible for a memorial marker if there were no remains. But the MIA’s next of kin has to request the marker.
The markers are placed in parts of the cemetery that are unsuitable for burial, on a steep hillside, for instance. The markers are essentially identical in size, shape and color to the iconic gravestones that line the cemetery.
Loewenberg’s marker is on a hillside in one of the oldest parts of the cemetery, just below a section filled with the Civil War dead.
According to the Pentagon, there are more than 83,000 MIA from past conflicts. Nearly 74,000 are from World War II.
Yates said she was confident the cemetery has room to continue adding markers at the present rate. She said she didn’t know what would happen if the cemetery faced a sudden increase in requests.
Of course, many people don’t know that their loved one is eligible for a memorial marker. Susie Shulman of Boca Raton, Fla., the daughter of Loewenberg and the mother of David Shulman, said she hopes word gets out to other families that they have the option to get a marker at Arlington, or any of the other national cemeteries.
“I didn’t know you could have a headstone if there were no remains,” she said. “Just to have some place to go to to feel that you’re paying respect — it’s important. ... He’s gone, and we don’t know where but we can go and pay our respect.”